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We need bigger ideas for Dix Park and mass transit

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Two days at the Raleigh City Council's strategic planning retreat put me in mind of the Beach Boys. Lots of "Good Vibrations," but short in the "Wouldn't It Be Nice" area of long-range planning and dreaming.

The good vibes emanated from the city's deal with the state to buy Dix Park, as well as booming development downtown. Also, the new leadership on the Wake County Board of Commissioners is supportive of public transportation, which is vital for fast-growing Raleigh.

Transit and Dix Park can be game-changers, which was "Fun, Fun, Fun," to think about, and prompted council members to sheath their animosities, pledging cooperation and compromise.

It was refreshing, too, to watch City Manager Ruffin Hall's new team of assistant managers in action. It struck me that Hall, who came to Raleigh a year ago, has reinvented his office as a bridge between council and staff, instead of the brick wall it used to be under former Manager Russell Allen.

Marchell Adams-David, Jim Greene and Tansy Hayward, the assistant managers, are young and exude optimism about helping council work with staff, and vice versa. Again, it was just a couple of days, but I remember the grim faces of yesteryear. Mayor Nancy McFarlane said that with Hall, the change in staff-council relations "is profound."

Then it was time for everyone, council and staff, to imagine "the next big thing" Raleigh needs. "Be bold," facilitator Michelle Ferguson kept saying. "Think BOLD," the printed agenda advised.

I didn't hear bold.

I had hoped to hear a bold commitment to tie future high-density development to transit, with such projects limited to locations on high-frequency bus and rail routes. I had hoped to hear, too, that high-density projects would be more likely to win approval if developers pledged affordable units in the mix with upscale units.

Aprovals would be so much more likely that you'd almost think the developers were required to offer affordable units except that requiring developers to do that is illegal in North Carolina. Zoning, though, is legal.

I also had hoped to hear that City Council is committed to a light-rail or streetcar connector from downtown Raleigh to Dix Park, an idea so obvious that perhaps no one thought to list it.

But here's what I think was going on. Raleigh officials have their fingers to the political winds, and believe that any mention of affordable housing, light-rail transit or ideas that seem too progressive or futuristic will spook developers whose support they consider critical to achieving transit gains.

The development "community" speaks through the Regional Transportation Alliance, an adjunct of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. The RTA is pro-buses. So am I. So is everyone who understands how pathetic Raleigh's bus system is. But that's not the end of the story.

After the retreat, I read the 90-page report "Wake County's Transit Choices," produced by local consulting firm, Kimley Horn, and Portland, Oregon-based Jarrett Walker & Associates. Just 1.1 percent of the people with jobs in Wake County commute using public transportation.

"Transit Choices" is a primer for what's ahead over the next two years. The Wake Commissioners are likely to go to voters countywide in 2016 with a referendum on the question of a half-cent sales tax for transit. The consulting firms are helping shape a plan to spend the money if it's approved. Hard decisions remain. "Choices" is about where we are now, which—transit-wise is—nowhere.

So, yes, buses first, because money spent on them will produce the quickest results. "Choices" points to some bus routes with decent ridership potential but lousy (that is, infrequent) service today, including Glenwood Avenue, South Saunders Street, Hillsborough Street and several routes through Southeast Raleigh.

But consider this: The debate over how to revive downtown goes back to the 1980s; yet it was 20 years before action was taken. The state began closing Dix Hospital in 2001. It may be 2025 before a true park can be created on Dix Hill.

In short, bold should mean what Raleigh will need, not a few years hence, but 20, 30, even 50 years from now.

From every political quarter, you're going to hear that if Wake voters approve the half-cent tax, all the money will go toward buses. But as "Choices" makes clear, when Raleigh's major roadways are congested with car traffic, as they will be in 20–25 years, the buses will be stuck in it, too. They will need a separate lane—the bus equivalent of a streetcar line or light-rail system running on tracks.

At that point, the only thing that will allow Raleigh to grow beyond its congestion is transit that bypasses the roadways. That's when we'll be congratulating ourselves for having the foresight, in 2015, to start planning for a light-rail system using the vast and largely empty rail corridor between Raleigh and Durham. With connections to South Raleigh—and its vast development potential—and Dix Park, put affordable housing at every stop.

Be bold.

This article appeared in print with the headline, "Raleigh, Be bold."

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